Not often that I approve of something that Republicans do, but I have to admit they have a good thing going with the upcoming Ames straw poll in Iowa.
With the primary season now compacted into less than a month (either that, or the actual Iowa caucus may come before Christmas this year) it is a fact that most Presidential candidates, especially those who lag in the polls but might have something useful to say, just won't have the time or resources to compete and get the necessary press coverage to make their case to the voters.
And one can argue that little is at stake in a voluntary (show up with an Iowa driver's license, claim to be a Republican, pay $35-- I guess that is to keep out the po' folks-- and vote) straw poll, but in fact it does provide an early test of the ability of a campaign to organize and turn out supporters in Iowa, a key to victory with its first-in-the-nation caucuses. More importantly, it will likely give some lesser known candidate a chance to jump up and seize the moment and muscle his (since the GOP primary field, as usual, is 100% white and male) way into contention.
Plenty will be at stake too. GOP candidates John McCain and Rudy Giuliani have both decided to skip the event, in effect conceding it to Mitt Romney. However this is more than as they would tell you, 'a strategic decision;' The underlying fact of the matter is that McCain and Giuliani don't have the organization in Iowa that Romney does, so if they did participate they'd embarassingly lose their first head to head contest; and if they don't build an organization in Iowa soon (maybe even by December if the caucuses move up) then they may well underperform then, and maybe lose to Romney when it is for real. Four or five months is a long time, but not that long.
Among other candidates, many of them have invested heavily in the straw poll. While Romney will win, how big he wins will be an early test of his strength. If he doesn't win by 20 or 30% over his nearest rivals with his main opponents for the nomination skipping the event it could be a sign that his campaign in Iowa isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson has said flatly that if he doesn't finish 'first or second' in the straw poll, he is done. Well, my prediction is that he won't, and he will be gone. Thompson had a chance to be a serious candidate had he run in, say, 1988 or 1996, but he waited to run until his moment had long since passed.
Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, who have been hitting each other over the head competing for the same group of voters are also trying to finish second. They've pulled out all the stops too, even encouraging supporters of Giuliani and McCain to show up and vote for them. One of them will certainly finish ahead of the other, and will claim a victory (likely he will be the 'minor' candidate who springs into the discussion) while the other will probably discover that he is following the path into irrelevance that was already blazed by Tommy Thompson.
An intriguing question is how well Ron Paul does. Paul's supporters are few but are almost fanatical in their devotion to him. The straw poll will provide an early window on how much they will impact the GOP race. Some Ron Paul sites on the internet are already predicting that the straw poll will be stolen from him, so they plan to conduct an exit poll of participants. It could be fun to watch the fireworks on that one.